The Play of PossibilitiesSerfs Enacting Aristocrats, Countesses Playing Peasants
The image of Aniuta (likely from French Annette) proliferated the eighteenth-century Russian comic operas, played in private theatres by serfs troupes and aristocratic dilettantes. These comic operas revealed three types of social cross-dressing: 1) in operatic plots, a countess could be disguised as a shepherdess; a peasant heroine might rediscover her aristocratic origin; 2) a real princess or countess could play a rustic girl, imitating her accent and manners; a young beautiful serf actress impersonated a noble matron; and 3) social transgression spilled from the stage to a real life when actors or aristocrats attempted to navigate across polar social divides. One particular case that relates to all three levels of cross-dressing is the story of the serf actress Parasha Zhemchugova and the owner of a famous serf troupe and the actress, a member of one of the prominent families, Count Nikolai Sheremetev. Strong social and gender biases and at the same time a certain ambivalences and “dangerous” possibilities associated with the culture of masquerade illuminate the sensibilities of late eighteenth century Russia, as reflected in sentimental and comic operas and in figures such as Prince Ivan Dolgorukov.
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